Northern Ireland’s disused railway network is a forgotten piece of industrial and rural heritage being lost to time. Over 600 miles of track bed lies dormant, winding through spectacular countryside, linking villages, towns and cities, major attractions and workplaces. It represents a major potential tourist draw begging to be developed. While our population faces a growing obesity problem, a major plank in the fight for healthier lifestyles sits quietly waiting for its moment to shine.
What is the vision?
There is an opportunity to uncover our hidden past, build for a healthier future, and provide a world-class walking and cycling infrastructure to sell to the world. We can build a network of traffic-free pathways on the footprint of our abandoned railway network and former canals, and work to link them beyond. The full extent of this potential network is staggering:
What are the benefits?
600 miles of traffic-free paths, trailing to every corner of Northern Ireland – what a spectacular selling point to promote tourism in Northern Ireland. Imagine the jobs we could support in the outdoor activity and hospitality sectors alone. Almost every major local tourist attraction would linked by this network. Old connections would be renewed between villages, towns and cities, with an alternative to private car travel. Safe space for individuals and families to walk or cycle, jog or walk the dog, opening access to our countryside.
There are millions of people across Europe and beyond who would consider basing a holiday to Ireland around long distance cycling trips. Our on-road National Cycle Network won’t tap into this market while inexperienced users or families are expected to spend most of their time sharing space with vehicles. Even on a small scale, the 42km Great Western Greenway in County Mayo points to the potential – delivering tens of thousands of additional tourist trips into the area, along with an estimated €7 million boost to the economy, each year. Scale that up across the whole of Northern Ireland, with a vast array of journey options, could be amazing.
Investing in greenways is shown to boost local economies, encourage regeneration schemes, create opportunities for entrepreneurs in rural settings, support employment options and improve public health.
What are the challenges?
Northern Ireland’s abandoned railway network is no longer fully intact. With the mostly rural setting, some sections have been lost to agricultural lands, building development, industrial estates, and former railway buildings being renovated into domestic dwellings. These issues will need to be tackled if a continuous network is to be realised. Discussions between landowners, local communities and political stakeholders are vital to find solutions, whether by route diversions or access agreements. Linking traffic-free paths across developed towns and cities is a challenge, but should be pursued with vigour to add safety and the potential for town renewal and redevelopment.
When the railway network was mostly built in the 19th century. Today many of our abandoned routes cross the border. To build a world-class network of greenways requires an all-island strategy which can unlock EU funding.
What can you do?
Each individual greenway needs a strong local voice to raise awareness, secure political and community buy-in and drive towards delivery:
- contact your local councillors and MLAs
- talk to Sustrans and your local council
- contact community groups, churches and business organisations
- set up a Facebook page and build awareness
- contact landowners on the route to gain access and photograph features
- get involved in local history groups and learn about your lost railways
You can also search this blog for a detailed look at some of the potential routes in Northern Ireland, such as Ballymoney to Ballycastle – The Greenway of Thrones..